07  Apr
Weather….or not

I’m typing this from the Michigan State University campus, and just finished a walk since I spent much of the day in the car. I was wearing my UConn Husky cap in hopes of encountering a Spartan basketball fan–hopefully a good-natured one since my Huskies recently knocked Michigan State out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But no such luck. Our hotel is on the edge of the university golf course, and there were some crazy golfers out there even though there were still traces of snow here and there. Maybe not so crazy since I remember playing one spring in the Poconos where we established a temporary local rule: Free lifts from snow drifts.

Cold weather has been in the news of late, as various predictions are that the Great Lakes are frozen so extensively–surface area as well as ice depth–that this will have a decided impact on early season cropping, perhaps persisting into June (!). One crops consultant is recommending that farmers seriously consider swapping full season corn hybrids for earlier-maturing ones. Others aren’t as spooked, say that it’s too early to be making any changes in cropping plans. If there’s any impact it’s more likely to be closest to the Great Lakes and other large bodies of water. Adding to the confusion is that weather prognosticators say that there’s an even chance of warmer vs. cooler spring weather. (This way they can’t be wrong.)

Also of concern is what to do about winter cereals such as triticale that were planted with the intention of harvest just prior to planting corn. Even with “normal” weather this often results in planting corn later than ideal, but what will happen if corn planting time arrives and the winter cereals have just started to put on yield but are a couple of weeks from the recommended flag leaf harvest stage? How long should farmers wait before they decide to forgo a triticale crop and start to plant corn? What impact will a foot of triticale growth have on corn planting, since we know that triticale produces toxins that are at least somewhat allelopathic to corn? (Allelopathy is the ability of one plant species to produce chemicals harmful to another plant species.) I’m told that there was about 30,000 acres of triticale planted in NY State last fall, most of it with the intention of harvest in the coming month, more or less. I think we’ll wind up much wiser but perhaps also somewhat sadder by the time we’re on the other side of spring planting and spring forage harvest this year.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: April 7, 2014, 8:17 pm | No Comments »

I place as much reliance on farmer testimonials in ads for agricultural products as I do in the daily horoscope, which is to say none at all. This isn’t to suggest that the farmer making the testimonial is lying or even exaggerating what he sees as the facts. However, if enough farmers try a product, even one that has no more ability to increase crop yields or quality than a spoonful of sand spread over a ten-acre field, a few farmers will have wonderful crops (usually due to favorable growing weather). The success of the crop had nothing to do with the foo-foo dust he sprinkled on the seed or the soil, but the dealer selling the farmer the foo-foo dust will convince the farmer that it alone was responsible for the bumper crop; he’ll get the farmer to agree, and then get a testimonial to that effect. The dealer can go to ten farmers who used the foo-foo dust and if he can convince only one that the stuff worked–of this farmer testimonials are born. Consider this: Have you ever seen an ad with a negative testimonial: “Yep, I tried foo-foo dust and I don’t think it did a darned thing. I got just as good a crops where I didn’t use it.”

Of course this doesn’t stop some farmers from trying even the wildest, most unlikely product. Many years ago a fellow came down to Northern N.Y. from Quebec with a station wagon full of bags of mineral supplement for dairy cattle. He claimed that the supplement (which turned out to be mostly sodium chloride) “flushed mastitis out of cows” and was completely safe, even to the point where if the farmer found blood in the milk it was OK to sell the milk, “it’s just the mastitis coming out of the cow.” The farmer who asked me about this said that it was about the craziest idea he’d ever heard of. I said that I wish I could see a bag of it, whereupon he said (quite sheepishly), “Come on out to the barn, I bought a couple bags of it.” But even something as wild as this can result in a farmer testimonial, especially if even one farmer’s mastitis problem appeared to decrease after he start to feed the salt. In this case we never found out much more about the miracle salt since the Quebec fellow was soon “invited” to leave the country by U.S. regulatory officials.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: March 3, 2014, 7:49 pm | No Comments »

I was reading a New York Times article about the new Farm Bill, and it was so negative that it should have appeared on the op-ed page–perhaps it did since I was reading it on-line. But what was revealing were the almost 100 reader comments; I read perhaps forty of them including all the ones the Times considered the “best”, and every single one disparaged the new bill. Much of the vituperation was over cuts to Food Stamps even though these reportedly will affect only 4% of Food Stamp recipients. But what moved me was what seemed like the unanimous opposition to any program that affects commercial farms–”factory farms” and “corporate farms” are two commonly used terms. Some farmers probably only wish that their farms could be run as seamlessly as a factory, but things such as weather and prices (over which farmers have little or no control) make that impossible. The more common term bandied about in the reader comments was “corporate farms”, used as a pejorative rather than as a simple description. The non-farm public obviously doesn’t realize that well over 90% of corporate farms are family farms, the great majority of them incorporated to facilitate the transfer of the business to the next generation. But agriculture doesn’t have a voice in the popular press…

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: February 6, 2014, 1:27 pm | No Comments »

07  Jan
Labeling GM foods

I had already decided to write this month’s post about labeling genetically modified foods, but before so was reviewing some of the dozen or so e-newsletters I receive. Three of today’s headlines stood out: USDA reopens the comment period on GM apples; a genetic discovery may lead to bigger tomato yields, and there’s a new push in California for a vote on GMO labels.

It will cost many millions to re-do food labels, a cost that of course will be passed down to consumers. And since I’d be willing to bet that poor folks use more packaged foods instead of preparing foods from scratch, it could be argued that the cost of BM labels hurts the poor more and therefore is regressive–a favorite term these days. Most people have no idea of how their food is produced, and therefore would probably be amazed at the percentage of soybean oil, corn oil–almost anything made from corn or soybeans in fact–that’s from GM crops. So unless and until there’s enough consumer pressure (and a substantial price premium for farmers) that farmers go back to growing non-GM crops, consumers would probably be amazed at the percentage of their foods that contain a GM grain or grain byproduct. This would mean a big-time U-turn for farmers since over 95% of U.S. soybeans are genetically modified. How much price premium would it take for farmers to switch? How much extra would consumers be willing to pay for a bottle of corn oil that’s made from non-GM corn?

I’m on the “no labeling” side of the argument, in large measure because there’s never been any research showing that GM products pose any threat to human health. So why label foodstuffs? I’d rather see labels including a “No GMO” statement, just as the jar of Peter Pan peanut butter in my pantry states “No high fructose corn syrup” on the label. Then let the consumers see the price difference between GM and non-GM products that are similar in every other way, and make their own decision.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: January 7, 2014, 7:33 am | No Comments »

11  Nov
Labeling laws

The bill that would require labeling of all foods containing genetically modified products was soundly defeated last week in Washington; now the battle moves on to Oregon, in a third attempt on the Left Coast. (A labeling bill in California was defeated previously.) Two New England states have passed labeling bills, but at least one more in the region will have to before it becomes law. My best friend lives in Washington, and was very much in favor of a labeling bill. But his educational background is social science and while he’s very well-read I’m not sure that he groks the concept of empirical data. For the data is all one-sided, showing that GMOs have absolutely no negative impact on human nutrition or health. The “foodists” tried to have all milk produced by cows receiving rBST to be labeled; failing that now the milk companies label milk that’s not from treated cows. Rather than labeling all foods produced with the use of GMOs, perhaps a middle ground would be to label foods made from non-GMO products. I think that consumers would be surprised at how few processed foods would be so labeled since over 90% of corn and soybeans are GM. Even the EU is softening it’s once-intractable stance on GMOs, and currently there’s a proposal to legalize the use of GM corn. (I don’t think there are enough soybeans grown in EU countries for this crop to be much of an issue.)

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: November 11, 2013, 7:46 am | No Comments »

14  Oct

October is often one of the nicest months of the year and more so in 2013 than most any October in recent memory. Here in our little vacation community there’s a bit of sadness that comes with October because the “snowbirds”–retired folks who winter in the south and are here at Oak Point from spring through fall–are leaving. We lose quite a few summer residents on or just before Labor Day weekend as schools and colleges restart, but these are younger families. The folks leaving in October are retired, and their age plus actuarial statistics are reminders that not all may be returning next spring. Katy and I will leave in mid-November; we’re the last of the “seasonal residents” to leave in the fall and the first to return in the spring, in late March. We’ve discovered that since we winter in Virginia, this schedule results in our seeing spring and fall arrive twice each year. For when we get to Virginia–North Chesterfield, just south of Richmond–some of the oak trees won’t have their fall colors yet, each spring the magnolia blossoms are falling by the time we head back north, often to remaining traces of the winter’s snow. This year there will only be three “Rounders”–folks that stay here year-around–in Oak Point, as an octogenarian couple who’ve lived here for many years have been talked into spending the winter with family in Connecticut. It’s not just the weather that makes Virginia attractive in the winter, but the lack of things to do around here once the boats, lawnmower and leaf rake have been put away for the season.

It’s been a wonderful fall for farmers to harvest; even the couple of big rains were far enough apart that they posed only slight delays. The warm weather has permitted both corn and soybeans to “finish”–even soybeans planted mid-June or a bit later. I haven’t checked with farmers about yields, but looking at the standing crop it appears that yields will be very good.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: October 14, 2013, 7:10 am | No Comments »

One of the more common questions I get is about asphalt floors for bunker and drive-over piles. We had our first asphalt floor installed in two new bunker silos at Miner Institute twenty years ago and since then have built several new bunker silos, all with asphalt floors. The only silo we had with a concrete floor was resurfaced with asphalt and is doing just fine. In fact, Miner Institute is in the process of enlarging this silo and will use asphalt; although farmers don’t often realize it until too late, concrete is a temporary floor; temporary since it’s lime-based and silage acids will start eating it away with the first load of forage dumped into it. Asphalt is impervious to silage acids, and I’ve seen asphalt floors in bunker silos that are over 25 years old and still in mint condition–I defy anyone to tell whether the floor is two year old or over ten times that. To anyone planning on using concrete for a silo floor, I ask—Why?

There’s a good leaflet available for anyone planning on installing an asphalt floor in a silo. The URL is below, or you can download it by going to the asphaltroads.org website and looking for publication IM038, “Hot-mix asphalt for silage floors and feeding bunkers”. It’s a good publication but I’m a bit prejudiced since I helped in the preparation of it.


Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: August 21, 2013, 9:28 am | No Comments »

I really wonder about those farmers who apparently don’t check the calendar before they plant. This morning, on the 4th of July, I drove past soybean fields that were just emerging, so were planted in the closing days of June. There’s simply no way these fields will mature, and it’s extremely doubtful that they plant the soybeans in late June with the full intention of harvesting for silage. Not that soybean silage is a terrible forage, just that I don’t think that was their intention. Soybeans are a relatively new crop to many farmers in this region, so I guess the learning curve is still pretty steep. It’s about to get flattened a bit, as well as their hopes of selling high-priced soybeans this fall. Not only will soybeans not be nearly as dear as they were a year ago, but a killing frost is almost certain to arrive before the beans are ready to harvest as a grain crop. What I expect will happen (unfortunately) is that instead of harvesting them for forage, they’ll continue to hope against hope until a killing frost does occur, at which point they’ll have missed the best time to harvest them for silage.

Not coincidentally, this may be a year when soybean silage will look pretty good, because it was so difficult to make first cut hay crop silage before the crop was far past the “milk cow forage” stage. Lots of first cut “junk” was ensiled in late June, and recent weather hasn’t been good for second cut for those farmers able to get the first crop off on time. Many of these farmers will desperately need a good corn silage crop…

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: July 4, 2013, 8:09 am | No Comments »

13  May
Silage inoculants

I’ve long been a fan of silage inoculants, of the opinion that they return much more in reduced silage losses and/or improved silage quality than they cost. Most inoculants cost about a buck per ton of forage, with some less than half that and some more than twice that. However, research has shown that properly inoculated and ensiled forages actually increase milk production, and dairy scientists are beginning to learn the mechanism behind the performance increase. It has to do with gas production in the rumen, that barrel-sized container of microorganisms. Gas production efficiency is improved by the results of some–perhaps most–silage inoculants. Recent USDA research suggests that silage inoculants return about $8.00 in increased milk production for each $1.00 spent on the inoculant. That’s at a milk price of $16.00/cwt, which is somewhat below the current “mailbox” price of about $20.00 in much of dairy country. Of course this depends on the price of the inoculant, the crop it’s applied to, and forage management from windrow to feedbunk, but with these figures it’s hard to imagine that over the long haul silage inoculants wouldn’t be economical. They say that nothing is foolproof to the sufficiently talented fool, but the dairy industry is a tough enough business that the fools have long since bombed out. My opinion, and the recommendation I’ve made countless times: Do some investigating to make sure that the inoculant you’re buying is research-proven, then follow directions closely since over-application is a waste of money while under-application reduces (in some cases maybe eliminates) effectiveness. Which forage species will benefit from silage inoculants? All of them!

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: May 13, 2013, 9:29 am | No Comments »

Two distressing items recently appearing in the agricultural press are almost certainly related. First were the results of recent farmer surveys finding that while farmers were doing a slightly better job of complying with required refuge acres for Bt corn hybrids, there was still a sizable percentage that were completely ignoring them. And it’s easy to cheat (for that’s what it is) since if a farmer buys only Bt seed corn from a dealer he has to assume that the farmer is buying his non-Bt seed corn from another seed company.

The second item reports that in the Corn Belt about half of corn farmers will use a soil insecticide where they’re planting Bt-rootworm corn. They’re calling it “cheap insurance” and maybe it is, but the insurance is only needed since Bt isn’t doing the job we thought it was going to. But how much of this is due to the growing number of confirmed cases of Bt-resistant corn rootworms? First discovered in Iowa, but now spreading. It this a failure of the technology, or the farmers’ use (or rather misuse) of it? As someone who has repeatedly defended the use of GM technology to my “foodie” and organic-loving friends–twice in the past week or so–I sure don’t like to see them get this ammunition for their war on GM crops.

As you head for the corn field in the coming weeks, consider these points:
1. Carefully and faithfully observe refuge requirements. Yeah, I know it may be inconvenient but you did sign the refuge agreement.
2. Don’t use the same Bt technology year after year; there are different GM “events” for rootworm control, with more coming down the pike soon. Rotate these events to delay/prevent the development of Bt-resistant insects. No rootworm control–GM or insecticide–is needed in 1st and often 2nd year corn. And unless rootworm problems are severe, the 1250 rate of seed treatments (Poncho, Cruiser Extreme, etc.) will provide good control.
3. Rotate! Your cheapest–and often best–corn is “sod corn”, for several reasons including soil tilth, pest control and nitrogen availability. Unless your land is very stony, the costs involved in a 3-year corn-alfalfa rotation vs. 4,5 or more years of continuous corn often make the shorter rotation more profitable.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: April 2, 2013, 12:26 pm | No Comments »

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